The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label cataclysm. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cataclysm. Show all posts

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Cataclysms and the Megamachine: Is History a Cycle or a Progression?

This image by the Tuscan painter Piero della Francesca exudes such power that it may truly blow your mind. Apart from the mastery of the composition, the perfection of the details, the fascination of the human figures, a canvas in the hands of a grand master is not just an image: it is a message. In this case, all the figures are static, there is no one moving. Yet, the painting carries the message of a tremendous movement forward in time. It shows a great change occurring: something enormous, deep, incredible: the triumph of life over death. And those who sleep through it are missing the change without even suspecting that it is happening. Just like us, sleepwalkers in a changing world, where gigantic forces are awakening right now. 

"Cataclysms" (*) is a recent book by Laurent Testot (Univ. Chicago Press, 2020) that goes well together with "The End of the Megamachine" (Zero Books, 2020) by Fabian Scheidler of which I wrote in a previous post

Both books see human history using the approach that I call "metabolic." It means to take the long view and see humankind in terms of a living entity. Call it a "machine" (as Scheidler does), call it "Monkey" (as Testot does), call it a "complex system" (as it is fashionable, nowadays), or maybe a holobiont (as I tend to do). It is the same: humankind is a creature that moves, grows, stumbles onward, destroys things, builds new things, keeps growing, and, eventually, collapses. 

Bot "Cataclysms" and the "Megamachine" catch this multiform aspect of the great beast and both emphasize its destructive aspects. Both understand that the thing is moving. More than that, its trajectory is not uniform, it goes in bumps. It is a continuous sequence of growth and collapse, the latter usually faster than the former (what I call "The Seneca Effect"). 

So, what's happening? Is history going in cycles, or is it progressing in some ways? It is a question that has been asked and answered in various ways over centuries of historiography, at least from when Edward Gibbon (in 1776) started wondering why the mighty Roman Empire had disappeared. 

For the Christian eschatological view, there was no doubt that the Empire had served its purpose and it had to disappear to leave space for a new world which, in turn, was bound to disappear in the Final Judgement. For the thinkers of the 19th century, instead, a different kind of teleology was at work. It was an interpretation of Darwin's ideas that saw evolution as a movement toward higher and higher levels of perfection, with the white European man as the pinnacle of the trend. 

Later, these ideas started to look naive, and a catastrophistic streak of thought started to grow. The collapse of the Western Civilization was clearly seen for the first time in a telescope aimed at the future in 1972, in the study sponsored by the Club of Rome titled "The Limits to Growth." The study had gone full cycle, returning to the old eschatological view of the end of the world. It was a cataclysm. Unavoidable, unless the megamachine could do something that the megamachine could not do: to stop growing.

But the universe is complex and the best-laid computer models of mice and men gang aft agley. Over the history we knew, no collapse has ever been the final one. After every collapse, there has been a rebound. So, history is both a cycle and a progression. There is something on the other side of the unavoidable collapse we are facing nowadays. All collapses bring change: it may well be their purpose in the universe. Just as the Romans couldn't imagine what would come after that their empire was gone, for us it is impossible to imagine what will come after us. We can only perceive that something enormous is stirring. Now we see it through the glass of our models, darkly: but then we will see it face to face.

(*) I had started this post with the idea of writing a review of Testot's book, but as I kept writing, the text grew by itself and it became something else. But, about "Cataclysms," by all means it is a great book -- not just dealing with catastrophic events but giving you an organic view of history, full of concepts and ideas that you cannot find anywhere else. By all means, do read it! It will change the way you see the world.